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Don't Worry, Xbox and PlayStation -- Gaming Is Just a Bonus on Android TV

Google's new Android TV can play -- but that's clearly not the focus.

Here’s what Android engineering director Dave Burke said about games onstage today at Google I/O:

  • A lot of people who don’t call themselves “gamers” play mobile games.
  • Three out of four Android users play games.
  • The new Android TV will have games, playable with a controller.
  • Games will tap into the same Google Play Game services as phone/tablet games, like leaderboards and achievements.
  • Multiplayer games will work between Android TV devices and other Android devices, like tablets.

(In a later section of the keynote, Google Play product manager Ellie Powers said those Google Play services for developers are getting an upgrade that includes the ability to save game progress in the cloud.)

A good start, maybe. But it’s nothing that will have the console gaming establishment shaking in its boots.

When Amazon unveiled its own set-top box, the Fire TV, it called gaming an added “bonus” to the box’s core media features. This invited some pyrrhic sniffing from the likes of Ouya, the much-hyped Android-based gaming box that fizzled after launch last year.

But even Amazon talked more about games in the Fire TV’s unveiling. The company’s internal games studio has recruited top gaming talent and promised a slew of first-party titles made for the device.

Will those games be any good? Who knows? But it’s something.

The only Android TV games mentioned at I/O, by contrast, were a platformer called Leo’s Fortune and the Android version of EA’s NBA Jam. It’s early yet, and I’m sure we’ll hear about more games (and projects like Razer’s Android TV microconsole) in time, but the emphasis on other Android TV features like voice control tells us gaming is also something of a “bonus” here.

So, what gives?

Gaming dominates on mobile devices, accounting for some 90 percent of all revenue on Google Play, according to analytics firm App Annie. The multi-billion-dollar question is how important the convenience of gaming on the go is to that dominance.

Once you plunk games built on top of a mobile operating system into the living room, can they compete with the deeper libraries on users’ Xboxes, PlayStations and Wiis? Or, to reach those mobile gamers who don’t call themselves “gamers,” can they compete with movies and TV on the big screen?

The fact that the Ouya’s top game only sold 7,000 copies would suggest “no.” But that’s one data point. And for better or worse, Android TV doesn’t seem to be designed to offer any clarity.

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